Monomania as Philosophy

(People who like “Monomania as Philosophy” will probably also like “Where Both Philosophy and Sex Went Wrong“)

René Descartes, tr. Clarke, Discourse on Method, Penguin, 1999.

René Descartes,tr. Ariew / Cress, Meditations, Hackett, 2006.

I was then in Germany, where I had been drafted because if the wars going on there, and as I was returning to the army from the emperor’s coronation, the arrival of winter delayed me in quarters where, finding no company to distract me and, luckily, having no cares or passions to trouble me, I used to spend the whole day alone in a room that was heated by a stove, where I had plenty of time to concentrate on my own thoughts…. DM p. 11

If this were the beginning of a short story, we would know what to expect next: cabin fever, dementia,  haunting by ghosts, murder, suicide, or hopeless insanity. And in fact, Descartes did experience quite considerable distress:.

As I consider these problems more carefully, I see so plainly that there are no definite signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep. As a result, I am becoming quite dizzy, and my dizziness nearly convinces me that I am asleep….. Yesterday’s meditation has thrown me in such doubts that I can no longer ignore them, yet I fail to see how they are to be resolved. It is as if I had suddenly fallen into a deep whirlpool; I am so tossed about that I can neither touch bottom with my foot, nor swim to the top. M 10/13

He comes to doubt the most evident facts of life (“things which no one of sound mind has ever seriously doubted”: p. 9) such as the existence of the physical world, or the existence of his body, or the validity simplest laws of reasoning, and he descends into paranoia:

Accordingly I will suppose not a supremely good God, the source of all truth, but rather an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me. I will regard the heavens, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things as nothing but the bedeviling hoaxes of my dreams, with which he lays snares for my credulity. I will regard myself as not having hands,, or eyes, or flesh, or blood, or any senses, but as nevertheless falsely believing that I possess all these things. I will remain resolute and steadfast in this meditation. M 12

Rather than resisting his madness, Descartes embraces it and commits himself to it:

My maxim was to be as firm and resolute as possible in my actions and to follow the most doubtful views, once I had decided to do so, just as steadfastly as if they were very certain, thereby imitating travelers who, when they find themselves lost in a forest, should not make the mistake of turning in one direction after another, or even less, of staying in the same place, but should always walk in one direction in as straight a line as possible and not change it for trivial reasons , even if initially it was only chance that determined them to choose it. For in this way, if they do not arrive exactly where they wish, they will eventually arrive somewhere……. DM 20

In order to preserve his insanity, he goes to the city (Amsterdam) where his solipsism will be most comfortably sustainable:

It is exactly eight years since this desire made me move away from all the places where I had acquaintances and to retire here….where I have been able to live as solitary and withdrawn a life as in the most remote deserts, without lacking any of the conveniences that are available in the busiest town. DM 24

Alone with his troubled mind, he takes this very mind to be the standard of all truth and reality. Whatever this mind is able to doubt is, by that token, untrue and unreal; whereas the “clear and distinct” ideas that this mind is unable to doubt are necessarily true. Besides the new ideas of clarity and distinctness, “perfection” and “substance” are now introduced (from one knows not where) as an unquestioned standard of reality. From systematically denying the evident, Descartes (like a child putting down one game and picking up another) now moves to the dogmatic affirmation of the dubious (the immortality and immateriality of the soul, the existence of a perfect God):

I judged that I could adopt as a general rule that those things that we conceive very distinctly and clearly are all true. The only outstanding difficulty is in recognizing which ones we conceive distinctly. Then, by reflecting on the fact that I doubted and that, consequently, my being was not completely perfect — for I saw clearly that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt — I decided to find out where I learned to think about something more perfect than myself and I knew clearly that this had to be from some nature that was in fact more perfect. DM 15

I knew from this that I was a substance, the whole essence and nature of which was to think and which, in order to exist, has no need of any place and does not depend of anything material. Thus this self — that is, the soul by which I am what I am — is completely distinct from the body and is even easier to know than it, and even if the body did not exist the soul would still be everything that it is. DM 25

From this point he believes it possible to come to a knowledge which he regards as total:

Since there is only one truth about each thing, whoever discovers it knows as much as is possible to know about it….DM 17

Now, all of these traits are characteristic of monomania: the denial of everyday reality, the solipsistic definition of truth, the complete autonomy of the disembedded mind, the need for clarity and simplicity, the need for perfection, and the claim of complete truth. And exactly as in Plato’s case, the ultimate ground of Descartes’ metaphysics is the argument from need: without a perfect God and an immortal, immaterial soul, we could know nothing.

Descartes is not completely frank about the depth of his distress during his episode of cabin fever. However, his response to this episode — his logic-chopping construction of a complete system of metaphysical armoring — tells us that this distress was severe indeed. After boldly having doubted even the existence of his own body, and even more notably, after coming to fear that other supposed humans were actually just clever automatons and that the world is merely an illusion concocted by an evil demon, he then (like a child putting down one game and picking up another) rushes on to the proof (on the basis of principles not in evidence) of propositions much more doubtful than the ones he denied. From the paranoid doubt of whatever is evident, he jumps to the dogmatic affirmation of the doubtful.

Descartes’ paranoid construction joined Socrates’ fantasy idealizations of handsome young soldiers to become the second foundation of Western philosophy. In fact, Descartes’ episode of cabin fever occurred while he was in the Bavarian army, and the philosophy of mind he built on this foundation provided the basis which made it possible to replace Socrates’ erotic men of war (Alexander the Great, the Caesars, the Crusaders, the Caliphate, etc.. etc.) with a new model army, solipsistic, disciplined and less randy (e.g. the soldiers of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, of the absolutist and romantic-nationalist eras, and so on up until the present). In general, bizarre metaphysics is necessary for anyone working to inculcate troops with the combination of disciplined brutality and suicidal fearlessness required for that line of work.

In the same way, it is the Socratic / Cartesian meld of erotic projection and solipsism that made possible all of the delusional, insatiable rationalities of the modern age: the paranoid madmen, romantics in search of the unattainable Absolute, cutting edge avant-gardists and nihilists wreaking their imaginary havoc, insatiable bourgeois consumers, the multiversity, global capitalism, the multinational corporation, and the sovereign state.

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Published in: on December 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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